Saturday, April 04, 2009
Pilgrim - Chapter 2
So it was that when I graduated from college, I had no relationship with God. I was truly seeking Him, but rarely went to Mass. Whenever I did attend Mass, I usually broke down in tears. I would sit and stand and kneel, trying mightily to maintain my compsure, and even if I was successful, when I went forward for communion, all control would be lost. I'd return to my pew barely able to see.
A strange thing was happening, though; I was there so rarely that it seemed I always managed to attend Mass when Gospel was the story of the Prodigal Son. And yet, I managed to miss the main point of that reading: God's love and Mercy. I did sense an invitation to return, but I didn't know how. I was terrified. And so instead of running into the open arms of our Savior, I unworthily received Him in Holy Communion and fled in tears, back into the darkness of my life.
I desperately needed to go to Confession as I was NOT living morally. Nor did the situation ever improve; rather, it spiraled downward. But I hadn't been to Confession since some time in high school, and I questioned whether it was really necessary, anway. Couldn't we just go straight to God? I was truly sorry for my sins, and certainly knew right from wrong, but I also knew I couldn't get myself out of them. I was stuck.
Yet, God continued to pursue me, refusing to let me get away so easily.
I remember driving down the street one day, remembering the words of my cousin, who had served as my Confirmation sponsor. She had been in college at that time and was speaking of the Sisters she knew there. And although her comment wasn't addressed to me, she was passing on advice she'd been given by someone in her own life.
It was so ironic, that there, as I ran amok in a world of sin, when the state of my soul was worse than abysmal, her words echoed through the years: "Every good Catholic woman should seriously consider becoming a religious sister."
And on the heels of that thought came the next one: "I'm supposed to be a religious sister."
WHAT!? I nearly slammed on the brakes, but instead I shut down that thought as quickly as I could. I knew the life I was living. I was NOT a good Catholic by ANY stretch of the imagination. And..me? A....SISTER???? Hysterical! Blasphemous. Boring.
I remembered during college, a great uncle had offered to pay for my education if I would become a teacher. He was a trustee at a Catholic school on the East coast and through his connections, I'd almost be guaranteed a job. But I refused, and that reason was this: his description of what he felt I should be doing sounded an awful lot like he wanted me to be a nun.
I pushed the thoughts away, thinking that I really was supposed to get married, and maybe to my boyfriend at the time. We'd have a house, I didn't want children, but we could have pets and maybe I'd get a horse finally. And have a successful career, etc etc.
So I moved on, but every so often my cousin's words would invade my thoughts: "Every good Catholic woman should seriously consider becoming a religious sister."
It was maybe around that time that I met an ex-Catholic anti-Catholic at work. I often spoke with friends about spiritual things. I was truly seeking God, and I said I was Catholic. Yet I didn't know my faith. One Evangelical friend invited me to her church, but I never went. In fact, I never darkened the door of another church as I couldn't for some reason, stop identifying myself as Catholic. So it was that I was challenged by others who hated the Church and lodged false accusations against her. But I had no defense. I knew that the attacks were unjust, I knew that the charge that Confession wasn't scriptural was wrong, although I wanted to agree.
But I couldn't. The statements from my anti-Catholic friend sent me on a journey to find answers to my own questions. I would go home from work, turn on the TV, and one day I found EWTN. Exactly the shows I needed: The Journey Home and Web of Faith.
Other people had the same questions as I! It was amazing to me, although I still wanted to reject many of the answers, thinking them "too conservative". The reality was, though, that I recognized Truth when I heard it, and that truth began to work on me, little by little.
I was going to Mass more often at that point, and felt like a fraud, as though everyone could look at me and see how awful I really was. I used to sit in the back of the Church, as far away from people as I could. At no time would I ever approach a priest, for I feared if I did, he would immediatly recognize my sorry state and say I had to go to Confession. I thought I was transparent.
And as desperately as I wanted to go to some authority and ask my questions, and get answers for my misunderstandings, I just as desperately feared the very remedy I needed, and had begun to want.
I began to pray, "God, please don't give up on me! Don't ever give up on me!"
I was trying, really trying, but had no solid Catholic friends. All that I knew were just as fallen as I was, if not more so. What I didn't realize is that even though I was so lost, God was there, and...didn't give up on me.
Finally, at long last, I made it to Confession. My boyfriend was in Afghanistan, I had been working hard to clean up my life, I'd learned a lot more about my faith and had begun defending it, if imperfectly. But it was a start. And I truly wanted to come home.
So, I searched online and found a communal penance service at a church I knew I'd never go to again for it was far away from where I lived. I went, picked up an examination of conscience, and sat down...in the back, as usual. The reading, of course, was the story of the Prodigal Son. I started crying and couldn't stop. They announced where the priests would be stationed, and to my great dismay, I realized I was FAR away from a confessional where I could be anonymous. I had to go face-to-face. So I stood in the line closest to me, weeping uncontrollably.
Thankfully no one said anything, and I did my best to hide my face. I wanted to flee, but wanted to stay. I'd finally gotten this far and NEEDED to go through with it. I feared that if I left, I'd never be able to come back. It must have taken a legion of angels to keep me there in that line!
Finally, it was my turn. When the priest saw me he exclaimed "Oh my!" and reached a calming hand out to me. I said, "It's been 12 years..." and in my hand, I had the examination of conscience. He quickly put things together, and said, "THAT'S WONDERFUL! YOU'RE the Prodigal Daughter!" He was overjoyed...I was flabbergasted. He went on to explain that the examen they handed out was meant to be a guide, not something designed to condemn us, and he told me to make a general confession. I did my best, I listed everything, barely able to speak, and I doubt he was even able to understand me most of the time. Yet he never asked me to repeat anything. I told him that I'd stayed away because I knew I was going to committ those sins again. I knew I was supposed to have a firm purpose of amendment, and didn't think I did.
I didn't understand at that time that God didn't expect me to perfect myself; that's His job. And the priest explained to me that our inability to free ourselves is why Christ died for us and why He gave us the Sacrament of Confession; in His mercy He knew we could come to Him over and over again if necessary, and be forgiven.
Receiving absolution that evening remains one of the most profoundly glorious moments of my life. When I left the church to head home, I knew it was gone. I knew I was free, if only for a little while. The following week was Holy Week, and I wanted to be ready. Our Lord waited.
Sadly, it was another three years before I had the courage to go to Confession again, for, as I suspected, I fell back into my old sins, very quickly. But something had changed; I truly desired to live a holy life, at least to some degree. I got another job, I broke up with the boyfriend, and I moved to another city where I had bought a house. God had lead the way and brought me into a world in answer to a simple prayer: for more Catholic friends.
Two of my new neighbors were young Catholic women about my age, my new parish had perpetual Adoration (although I really didn't know what that was), and I was making more and more connections to other Catholics online through Catholic Answers forums. I learned a great deal, began attending local conferences, went to Mass every Sunday...and was still living in a state of mortal sin. And yes, I was receiving Communion.
At some point I became convicted and stopped receiving, although I continued to go to Mass. Finally one day I took the day off of work to ENSURE I would go to Confession. And finally, I went in, this time anonymously, made a three year confession, and promised the priest that I would never again stay away for so long. And I was serious, making it a habit.
At first, I would be shaking and crying, terrified, yet realizing the irrationality of my response. Only GOOD things were happening! And so I continued to go, at least once a month if not more often.
This is a habit that has continued, and I hope to never again fall so far away from Our Lord that I'd fear not to come back.
As it was, I found my parish home, I was surrounded by wonderful Catholic friends, and finally in a place to begin to listen to what God REALLY wanted to say to me.